TV series may well be the new epics, geek passions seem the new “shared ways of life” (read: cultures) that unite people into online communities akin to modern tribes.
From sports clubs to cosplay, from nerdy themes to kinky fanfic, and perhaps extending into religions, some of the roots of these “tribes” may be old, but much of them is new.
They are based on our ‘natural’ heritage as social animals, our urge to socialize and form communities, and our typically human propensity to be both parochial, suspicious of strangers, and welcoming, at least as long as an other does not seem to pose a threat, to life or to psychological well-being.
As fandoms, though, such groups are combinations of people into cyber-tribes of shared (pop-cultural) interests, removed from much of the real-world, practical relations to survival that an actually co-habiting community would have faced.
The passion and creativity being invested in the discussion and continuation of the stories that bind them is all the greater, utterly fascinating – and perhaps a little bit problematic.
The unity achieved by way of shared interests, among people who may otherwise not even want to see each other eye-to-eye, is a fantastic difference to how things typically are in what is often labeled “in real life.”
The way that looks and status often do not matter online, and sometimes not even in physical meetings of fans, can bode well for the potential for human understanding.
But of course, the same abstraction of persons into online personas, the same relative anonymity, also comes with easy misunderstandings and quick emotional flare-ups. Flame wars and trolling are another side of that coin.
This discussion is common, but it overlooks another relationship that deserves more attention: The overlooked question, to me, is what it tells us about our (not) being at home in this world when so much energy is devoted to the virtual lives of others, to the desire to immerse oneself in these imaginary worlds, but not to one’s own life and the actual world.
It is understandable that we would be interested in some escape from what we ordinarily do and can be and have any day, into a world designed to appeal to our desires.
Whether it be romance or a(nother kind of) thrill, hidden lives or even superpowers, stories make it possible to let the imagination run wild and to try out different kinds of identities. As one fantastic study put it, it gives us an opportunity for “Becoming a vampire without being bitten.”
The last time you, as an actual person and not a character in a story, were somewhat free to change who you (thought or played) you were was as a child, just playing.
As a teenager, you might have played around with different identities and tried to come into yourself, too.
But then, as an adult, you are expected to play certain prescribed roles, fall into certain schemas, and have no more time, money, or even just energy to be or become anyone but who you’ve come to be.
You are not supposed to be anything more than a part of the economic machine, anyways. Work, make money, spend it again.
You can’t typically change yourself too much too quickly, be that because your own capabilities are limited and because new skills take time to develop or because the social ties, conditions, and circumstances you are in restrict your possibilities.
Real change takes real time.
But you can imagine being completely different. You read or play a character, and you gain some experiences, or at least memories/stories, of their personality and adventures. Even if it isn’t different, at least it feels so.
It feels good, and with that, much attention and cognitive capacity gets invested in knowing and discussing all the details of the respective fandom’s central theme. It may go to the point where the most minute details are gleaned from freeze-frames of a show, references are checked and allusions interpreted, characters put into further situations and raised up as ideals and objects of desire.
Nothing against a little infatuation with a story of interest or even a hero or heroine to emotionally attach to in a world with too few friends and too little excitement – but wouldn’t there be a lot that could be studied about actual life and the real world, and a lot to be gained from doing so?
Couldn’t we invest a bit more time and energy, not into wanting to be some fictional other in another world, but into making ourselves and our world better?
Life isn’t (just) a story, and therefore it does not appeal so easily. It’s dangerous and messy, and the hero doesn’t always win. It takes time to change, to grow, to create your better self, yes.
But it’s also real and it’s as fascinating as we make it out to be.
There is a lot to discover. And besides, if you were a character in so many a novel or movie or TV serial, you probably wouldn’t be the hero but just the passerby or the random victim.
I sometimes wonder if I could ever be interesting enough to fit into Preston and Child’s Pendergast series (yep, I’m a fan of that), and the conclusion is that only one thing is sure: If I were a character in there, I’d probably be one of those who had long since encountered a gruesome and untimely death…
You only have that one life you are living now, as far as you can humanly know, it will be over soon enough – and there is a lot to discover and do in it.
There are stories to delve into, but there is also the story you yourself “write” by what you do every single day.
Every step taken – or avoided; every little piece of learning that makes you know more, every decision taken, makes you go on. If it’s not in a good direction making you a fan of your life, maybe it’s time to take a different approach, to re-write a bit.